'Militant Islam' -- ignoring history and current reality

September 29, 2002|By Robert Ruby | By Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

Militant Islam Reaches America, by Daniel Pipes. W.W. Norton, 256 pages, $25.95

By dying without leaving clear instructions for choosing a successor, the prophet Muhammad guaranteed Islam a stormy existence. Islam's second and third caliphs ("successors") died at the hands of assassins. Caliph No.4 fought the man who became No.5 to a draw on the battlefield, only to be stabbed to death in a mosque by a follower who believed the war should been harder fought. Those were terrible, violent times, the fighting lasting for more than a generation.

Disputes about the religion's proper course have never stopped. Sunnis (followers of Muhammad's sunna, his "beaten path") are on one side of various doctrinal quarrels, on the other are Shia (followers of Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali). Early in the 20th century, profoundly conservative Sunnis won control of Saudi Arabia. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution in Iran that marked a sudden ascendancy of profoundly conservative Shiism.

And beginning with Muhammad, Islam's religious leaders doubled as political leaders. Caliphs were heads of religion, heads of state and generals of their armies. Osama bin Laden, as commander in chief of al-Qaida, fits well within the history of the faith, as does Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas. They attracted followers by radicalizing the faith, promising to alter the balance of political and military power.

Daniel Pipes, the author of 10 previous books about Islam and the Middle East, stridently contends in Militant Islam Reaches America that the history is mostly irrelevant, that Islamic fundamentalists are in fact the heirs of fascists and communists. In his telling, all three movements have sought to create a radical utopia incompatible with democracy.

Largely a collection of previously published articles, Militant Islam is not a subtle book. Pipes weakens his own case about the genuine dangers of militant Islam by seeing its tentacles everywhere, and suggesting that the United States is threatened nearly as much by open political debate as by bin Laden and the angry young men of the Muslim world.

He advocates the United States pressure Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to revise textbooks that teach intolerance of non-Muslims, somehow bring order to Somalia, somehow steer democratic change in Iran. The danger at home, he writes, "is no less ominous than the danger abroad." Steps must be taken: "And it means military tribunals where needed; restrictions on lawyer-client privilege in certain cases; and, when appropriate, the serious use of 'profiling to uncover sleepers and other terrorists.' "

A polemic has license for exaggeration, but Militant Islam makes indefensible claims. Citing Iran's eight-year war against Iraq, Pipes suggests that Islamic states are inherently war-like, ignoring the fact that the war was started by secular Iraq. Afghanistan's civil wars are blamed on militant Islam, a gross simplification ignoring the venality and murderousness of the warlords who opened the way for the Taliban.

Pakistan is described as fully democratic, surely news to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and bewildering efforts are made to place personalities on the Cold War's left-right spectrum: Afghanistan's Abdul Rashid Dostum, an especially unsavory warlord who fought alongside the Soviets before fighting alongside the Americans, is described as a leftist, which is meaningless. There is mention of "leftists in the Middle East" -- also meaningless. In the guise of advice, Pipes urges the United States to "join with the left against the right whenever circumstances suggest doing so" -- but what does that mean?

A chapter devoted to the unmasking of Islamic sleeper cells could be mistaken for self-parody. Clues to search for include, "Sending or receiving large amounts of money; criminal activity, especially reliance on counterfeited money and smuggling; a promising career that failed, descent into drugs and alcohol, then redemption through Islam; an offer to work for the enemy's intelligence service."

Bin Laden's rise was not inevitable. Nor was Khomeini's or the ascension of Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East. Islam helped inspire and steer those movements, but they were products of powerlessness, not piety. Corrupt or authoritarian governments ignored a population, or jailed or exiled anyone bold enough to protest the lack of a voice and the lack of a future. I doubt that the men who piloted airplanes into skyscrapers or blew themselves up on crowded buses saw their actions primarily as expressions of religious faith. The leaders who inspired them wanted a terrible power extending far beyond a mosque.

The United States faces clear and present dangers, but their source is not militant Islam. The angry young men of the Persian Gulf states, Central Asia and the Middle East want a present better than their pasts -- education, a job, prospects for their families.

Ask the jobless men idling their days in the casbah of Algiers, their opportunities ruined by a ferocious civil war kindled by Islamic extremists. Or the illiterate young men of Pakistan, the unemployed men and women of Gaza, or the men and women who were victims of Afghanistan's warlords or the Taliban. Given the chance by the regimes controlling their lives, they would choose school or a real career over jihad.

Robert Ruby, for five years the paper's Middle East correspondent, is foreign editor of The Sun and author of Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms. A paperback edition of his Unknown Shore was published in June.

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